“My world man … Yes, dopeys and drugman and dapper mocking Dans—the fuzz and pussy and pussy-collared: the Jesus, please extorters on cornerfront, in candy stores converted; the hurried, harried, hungry, for whom despair and life compose a litany—a dirge—preceding, yes, overlasting their damn-faced passing. Mine. And me. I’m them.”
From The Scene, Clarence Cooper Jr.’s acclaimed first novel (1960, Crown Books)
Clarence Cooper Jr. was a black novelist from Detroit, a writer whose reputation—both during his life and after—has danced wickedly from one extreme to the other, from the obscure to the iconic.
His work and life were marked by a complex dualism that at once drove his creative spirit and likewise relegated his fiction to the margins.
Cooper is usually referred to as a crime novelist, one working in the noir tradition. That’s pretty much true—though it’s also true his work has a range of style and form you won’t find in many crime novelists, living or dead.
I only first learned about Cooper a few years ago, down in New Orleans—at Bouchercon, the World Mystery Conference—discovering him not in some fevered conversation, under a ceiling fan in a barroom in the Quarter, as one might like to imagine, but in one of those hotel conference rooms that smell of corporate America. But the underground has a way of snaking its way through everything. In that room, there was a panel going on. One of the speakers was Gary Phillips, novelist and editor, himself raised in South Central Los Angeles. The subject matter was forgotten noirists, crime writers now lost in the cultural ephemera but who had inspired and shaped the panelists’ own work.
Such influences, of course, are multitudinous and ever-changing. Gary acknowledged that dead away. For Phillips, though—at least at that particular moment, inside that conference room, while the descendants of the Dirty Dozen Jazz Band wailed on the streets outside—that writer was Clarence Cooper Jr.
In that brief talk, Phillips outlined the essentials of Cooper’s career, and the paradoxes. How Cooper’s first novel, The Scene—a stream of consciousness novel, part crime fiction, part memoir, written in an experimental style evoking William S. Burroughs and Henry Miller—brought Cooper into the literary spotlight for a brief season. How his subsequent fiction, five books written over the course of seven years, between 1960 and 1967, were mostly ignored, relegated to pulp houses publishing out of Chicago. How Cooper, a heroin addict, did much of his writing in jail and died young in New York City. Even so his work influenced black street writers—like Robert Beck (AKA Iceberg Slim) and Donald Goines—subterranean pulp novelists who captured a street culture that critics, black and white, shied away from acknowledging.
Cooper, Phillips explained, was of the same world as Beck and Goines. Then again, he wasn’t.
There was, on one hand, his language-dense, scene-shifting work that blended noir convention with the avant garde, in a style that was at once literary and evoked the rawness of the street. Then, on the other side, there was his narrative-driven work that smelled of the pulps. On account of this duality, publishers struggled with how to present Cooper’s work to a mainstream audience. Part of that difficulty had to do with the man himself—who lived on the margins, well outside the promotional mechanisms of literary New York—so much so that, even today, what we know of Cooper’s biography is sparse and contradictory, based on police records and extrapolations from his writing. Also, his work was not easy to categorize for readers—ranging as it did from hard core noir to the experimental. Nor did he, in his portrayals of the black underworld—or in his searing pulp—shy away from the depravity of certain characters, black or white. He was in this way similar to Chester Himes, whose work met with similar resistance, especially early on: another black writer who worked from jail and whose fiction straddled both sides of the literary street.
After Cooper’s death, some of his work was reprinted in the 90’s, both here and abroad. Though this drew attention from the Brits, prompting The Guardian to announce that Cooper was finally “being recognized as the great American novelist he was,” the response in the U.S. was more muted. He remains the kind of writer, known mostly by cognoscenti and other writers, whose influence, paradoxically, is far larger than his immediate audience.He remains the kind of writer, known mostly by cognoscenti and other writers, whose influence, paradoxically, is far larger than his immediate audience.
As a writer and small press editor myself—one who draws sustenance from the literary underground, inside the genre and out—I was drawn to Cooper. That day in New Orleans spurred my own exploration into his work, as well as an extended conversation with Gary Phillips, one that began in earnest several months later and took place mostly through e-mail. That conversation led eventually to my asking Gary to write an afterward for The Syndicate, which I had decided to publish under Molotov Editions: an in-house studio imprint I had started in 2016, a small house (no one pretends for it to be otherwise) with an anarchist, subterranean impulse, part noir, part Dadaist, but ultimately beholden to no orthodoxy.
Small publishers like Molotov, with no virtually no overhead—unbound by catalogues and the Neilsen Bookscan ratings—have the ability to do things that larger publishers can’t, particularly if we understand that the noise a book makes in the marketplace does not necessarily have much to do with its value to readers. Smaller publishers still face intense difficulties getting books in front of readers, no matter the digital age, but at the same time, it’s also true that smaller houses, even tiny ones, often lead the way in discovering (and rediscovering) writers on the margins.
Witness Hard Case Crime, a small publisher that instigated the neo-noir renaissance at the turn of this century. Or the original Black Lizard Press—published out of crime novelist’s Barry Gifford’s attic in Berkeley—the house that helped rediscover Thompson and Willeford and also first published Jim Nisbet’s Lethal Injection as well as the under-the-radar prison novels of Sin Soracco, a Sicilian American woman from the Bay Area. Witness, too, another California house, Black Sparrow, publisher of Bukowoski, John Fante, and the killer urban fiction of Wanda Coleman from Watts.
Molotov, of course, can’t claim to be in the same category as these other, legendary houses. But it is part of the same underground movement.
Why The Syndicate?
Of Cooper’s six books, it is arguably the most obscure—never published in the U.S. under Cooper’s real name until now. It is also a decidedly pulpish work, written in a style anomalous to most of Cooper’s other fiction. On the surface, for some readers, the book no doubt runs contrary to contemporary sensibilities. But the surface, of course, is only the surface, and the book seemed to me a brilliant example of genre fiction of a particular era, a blistering piece of mid-century noir, renegade in its impulses, portraying an American landscape —as Peter Maravelis of City Lights expressed it to me after reading the novel—“littered with the twisted and damaged psyche of game rigged to take out all its players.” The Syndicate, especially in juxtaposition with The Scene, Cooper’s first published novel, seemed to me to embody the dualities and paradoxes that surrounded Cooper’s life and career.
There were other things that drew me as well.
The Syndicate is a hard-hitting, fast paced story plunging into the psychosexual depths of a ruthless enforcer sent to retrieve syndicate money. The novel is told from the first person, within the consciousness of its main character. It is, on the surface, a book entrenched in the brutal tropes of the era. Cooper’s prose is vibrant, full of violence, full of life, and also full of a sly humor: subtle nods that suggest the writer pulling the strings is completely aware of the ironies, of the clichés, just as he is aware that the narrator’s fierce interaction with women, together with his loathing of the gay gangsters who rule the local underground, belies an underlying attraction to the men he has been commissioned to kill.Cooper’s prose is vibrant, full of violence, full of life, and also full of a sly humor.
When I first read The Syndicate, I was held fast by its over-the-top prurience, its violation of what we might—as respectable readers —allow ourselves to read and find entertaining, in much the way I was held fast by Jim Thompson’s portrayal of Lou Ford, or the way Dorothy Hughes entered so brilliantly (and empathetically) into Dix, the disturbed, sociopathic war veteran who narrates In a Lonely Place.
I was reading the book in the its original edition—published in 1960, under the pseudonym of Robert Chestnut—an edition which made no mention of Cooper’s race or identity, no mention of his earlier novel, The Scene, published just months before to considerable acclaim. Utterly devoid of literary pretense in its packaging, that pseudonymous edition featured on its original cover a sketch of a white woman, a blonde shake dancer in sheer pink, legs spread wide, hand cradling her own breasts.
While reading The Syndicate, I had on the table in front of me an edition of The Scene, featuring one of the few surviving photos of Cooper—about thirty years old, in an Afro haircut and military-style jacket—a publication accompanied by the highbrow reviews comparing Cooper to Richard Wright and Nelson Algren. For me, this cognitive dissonance did not distract from either book, but enriched both. I could not help, as I read The Syndicate, but think of the ironies implicit in its portrayal of racial and sexual identity, of the trap ensnaring all the characters, of the inherent allegorical irony in a story about doomed gangsters—written by a black man hiding his identity from a mostly white audience—a story which nonetheless carried a forbidden charge, an acknowledgement of a fixed system, a character trapped both by his own nature and the fabric of the world; a dark book nonetheless vibrant in its nihilism, reminding me of Simenon at his ugliest (and best), of Manchette, of books like Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat and Chester Himes’ If He Hollers, Let Him Go, and countless others, by writers mostly dead (as most good writers are), traffickers in the obscure and forbidden, souls lingering—like Cooper’s enforcer in one of The Syndicate’s most moving scenes—a man hovering at the water’s edge, a dark pool filled with the remnants of the narrator’s dreams: a vision, in the impossible distance, of some vanishing savior walking upon the water.